Entrepreneur Depression: Sob story, real-life threat, or a good joke-source

The Rob Lowe Netflix Comedy Unstable paints a picture of a person with typical entrepreneur depression after his wife has passed away and how he became ‘unstable’. Unfortunately, not every story of entrepreneur depression is laughable. Quite the opposite.

A University of Berkeley study found that 72 percent of entrepreneurs are directly or indirectly affected by mental health issues compared to 48 percent of non-entrepreneurs. Living in a constant world of uncertainty, and taking immense risks, while feeling isolated are all part and parcel of an entrepreneur’s life.  While being called ‘mental’ is often referred to as a joke, depression is no joke and should receive urgent attention.


The Creative Mind of Andy Dunn

In his book, “Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind,” Bonobos co-founder and former CEO Andy Dunn open up about his bipolar disorder diagnosis, exploring the inherent challenges as well as how it fueled his entrepreneurial spirit.

On the positive side, Dunn writes in the book that his “controlled hypomania” helped him work long days and generate “kinetic positive energy” to inspire his staff and innovation. “Everything is clicking, everything is making sense, life has a purpose. Colors seem brighter; gratitude flows. This is the zone where creativity and productivity flourish.”

Living Andy Dunn’s life seems pretty colorful. The question is whether this is the ideal way of going about life.

Aaron Swartz - Entrepreneur Depression


Aaron Swartz: A founder touched with fire.

‘I have a lot of illnesses and I don’t talk about it much, for a variety of reasons. I feel ashamed to have an illness. (It sounds absurd, but there still is an enormous stigma around being sick.) I don’t want to use being ill as an excuse. (Although I sometimes wonder how much more productive, I’d be if I wasn’t so sick.) And, to a large extent, I just don’t find it an interesting subject. (My friends are amazed by this; why is such a curious person so uncurious about the things so directly affecting his life?)”

These are the words of Aaron Swartz, founder of Reddit, the RSS system, and a whole lot of extra accolades. Aaron committed suicide at the age of 26 by presumably hanging himself.  This is just so insanely sad and although it was definitely not the intention to get everyone in tears with my argument, it remains a reality that we should keep in the back of our mind.

Are we doing enough to support our entrepreneurs? Are we doing enough for our own well-being?

72% of Entrepreneurs battle with mental health.

Dr Michael Freeman and a team from the University of Berkeley conducted a study on the effects of entrepreneurship on mental health and the findings are not very surprising.  Or at least if you are an entrepreneur battling with anxiety and burnout you will definitely understand where these numbers come from.

This study on entrepreneurship has been dedicated to Aaron Swartz.  In the prologue of the study, the authors write: “We honor the memories of our brilliant, brave, and beloved entrepreneurs whose missions will never be accomplished. We seek to understand the causes of their strengths and vulnerabilities, hoping that application of this knowledge will empower future entrepreneurs to prevail.”

Not everyone can be an entrepreneur.

Freeman, who was once a co-founder and CEO himself, identified the need for this type of research through his experience as an entrepreneur. “Everybody can hold a job, some can lead a team or club, but very few people can start and grow a business,” he says. “I thought there had to be a difference between job holders and even leaders within organizations and those who start a business — and the research we’ve conducted validates that hypothesis.”

The compounding effect.

Freeman concludes that founding a business can compound stressors one would encounter normally. It creates weak points that might not matter in other professions or lifestyles. “Entrepreneurship affects people with and without prior mental health conditions, and personality has something to do with your vulnerability,” he explains. “If you are an introverted person, but as an entrepreneur you can’t succeed without building relationships, that personality trait creates a vulnerability for you.”

The stigma of depression is still around.

This entrepreneurship study reported that 81% of people still believe there is a stigma in asking for help.  Most people do not admit that they are having a problem for fear of being ostracized.  This problem is exacerbated depending on which cultural group you belong to.  I myself hail from a very conservative Afrikaans background and like Japie Mulder jokingly mentioned in our ExpeditionBusiness interview with him, we are just supposed to shut up and sit in the corner.  And yes, men are definitely not supposed to cry.

Money vs Purpose

It is often said that one of the biggest reasons why entrepreneurs battle with mental health is that they are forced by circumstances to follow the money and not their purpose.  One of HotFM’s DJs jokingly remarked last week that our weeks are there to make a living, but that the weekend is there to live.  I would love to see the statistics of how many people do the work that they are passionate about and how many people simply only do the work that they do because of the income that it produces.

This fact in itself is so super sad. This is probably the reason why the restaurants and bars are overflowing on a Friday night. Why do some people dash out to the bush at the first chance they have or run themselves into a standstill while training for the Comrades?

Business Adventure Lost

And yes, it is possible that due to circumstances, you find yourself so burnt-out that you have lost the passion that you have always had for your business and the work that you do within it.  The other side of the story is that you started your business due to your love for working with your hands, but are now so bogged down by admin and HR that any passion that you had for your company has sunk into the very deep side of the ocean or as Freeman describes it in his study, ‘has been touched by fire’.

I know that feeling so extremely well that it brings tears to my eyes when I think about it.  When my marriage went south, my number one priority, except for my children’s happiness, was to grow my marketing agency.  When you are battling pressure on the home front and while still aiming to make a difference in the community, things get interesting.  Selling my company was a massive mistake.  One that I would not have taken if I was not utterly and completely burnt out.  And yes, I should have consulted someone then, but I didn’t.

Adventure Rediscovered

This is probably why I am passionate about helping entrepreneurs rediscover the adventure in their business.  A psycho-analysis might not be required to get to the bottom of the stresses and strains in your business. Simple changes can make a massive difference and can be the Rubicon that you were bound to cross.  The last momentum before you reach the tipping point.

Entrepreneur Depression: The Long & Short

Yes, there is a massive difference between being clinically depressed and experiencing the standard stresses and strains.  The reality is that you cannot ignore entrepreneurial depression.  If you see a spec of grass that is burning, you should put out that fire immediately before it turns into a full-scale bushfire.

Statistics are always debatable. Life is however too short not to be taking advantage of all the positives and fixing all the negatives as far as humanly possible.

Sharing Stories of Entrepreneur Depression

Entrepreneur depression is not supposed to be a source of a good joke. Or should it? It has been said that humor distracts us from our problems and promotes a lighter perspective. Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle have been trying to explain humor since ancient times. #ExpeditionBusiness aims to share stories of our entrepreneurs. Their highs and most definitely their lows. How they get through their not-so-great days. If you have a story that we should share, we would LOVE to know about it. Alternatively, we would really appreciate it if you share the #ExpeditionBusiness platform as far and wide as possible. At addVENTURES, we believe that the more we share stories of the not-so-great side of being an entrepreneur, the more light we will see at the end of the tunnel.

The reality is that shit happens to all of us at some point in time. It is part of the process of growing.

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